Established stars are put on display and shine brightest in the NFL playoffs. Yet those experienced players aren't the only elements to the postseason. And sometimes, the key supporting actors who make the playoffs such a gripping drama every January are rookies.
This postseason features plenty of first-year players who'll appear in the first round.
Let's rank these rookies, not by their individual quality but by their importance to Super Wild Card Weekend.
Honorable Mention: Tariq Woolen, CB, Seahawks
It felt wrong not including Woolen after the dazzling regular season the rookie had, but I was already at 10 names, so I created an honorable mention for the first-year pro from UTSA. Woolen led the league with six interceptions in 2022 and had 16 pass breakups along with that high pick total. And he's basically a lab creation at over 6-foot-4 with 4.26 speed and a 42-inch vertical. The Seahawks are underdogs and they're facing the well-oiled 49ers machine. Why isn't he higher?
Because Woolen has been a blanket down the field, and San Francisco's offense is centered around quick passing and YAC. Plus, Kyle Shanahan is obsessive about creative ways to run the football, and his team is darn good at it. Woolen's impact is reduced because of the specific matchup in this playoff contest. He's tremendous, though, and his development was fast-tracked this season.
10. James Cook, RB, Bills
Is Cook going to be "the dude" in the Bills backfield for these playoffs? Devin Singletary is so effective laterally but had a fumble when the Bills were deep in their own end against the Patriots in the regular-season finale. Likely due to that mishap, Singletary only played nine snaps the entire contest. Cook outpaced him with 13 snaps and took nine carries for 46 yards (5.1 yards per attempt).
Since about the midway point of the season, Cook has appeared comfortable in Buffalo's offense, and it's shown in his effectiveness. Since Week 11, the rookie has toted the rock 47 times at a 6.23 yards-per-carry clip. Don't get me wrong, the Bills are a pass-centric club. That's why he's at No. 10 on this list. But Cook's presence and big-play capabilities may be useful for Buffalo to keep defenses off balance and potentially close out games late.
9. Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Giants
Thibodeaux providing the Giants with a monster effort would go a long way in the Giants escaping Minnesota with a victory on Sunday. Is it an absolute necessity? Not really. Which is he's at No. 9 here as a former top 10 pick playing a premier position.
In the Christmas Eve, last-second defeat at the hands of the Vikings, Thibodeaux had one pressure on 46 pass-rushing snaps. His edge-setting, run-stopping prowess will matter in New York's attempt to slow Dalvin Cook. And without star right tackle Brian O'Neill, there's a little opening for Thibodeaux to make Kirk Cousins' life uncomfortable in the pocket.
8. Kenneth Walker III, RB, Seahawks
Run the football and play defense. Ask your dad or grandpa their keys to winning in the playoffs, that's likely what they'll tell you. In today's NFL you're probably going to want to pass well and stop the pass, but I'll give the older generations their due respect for this matchup from a Seahawks perspective -- if Seattle can hum on the ground, it has a puncher's chance. (The elder statesmen in your family will get that reference).
And I'm not expecting Seattle's offensive line to control the line of scrimmage in this one. The best remedy for the ground game when a blocking unit can't physically dominate is a hyper-elusive, contact-balance magician at running back. Walker demonstrated flashes of being that type of back as a rookie. He had a forced missed tackle rate of 21% during the regular season, not one of the highest in the NFL but the exact same figure as Austin Ekeler. He's a bowling ball thundering down the lane at 5-foot-9 and 211 pounds, too. A large game from Walker would significantly boost Seattle's chances of springing an upset in the Bay Area.
7. Charles Cross, OT, Seahawks
Cross isn't ahead of his fellow rookie offensive tackle Abraham Lucas for a specific reason. Head to the writeup on Lucas for that reason. But, of course, Cross had to be included as the former No. 10 pick at left tackle protecting Geno Smith against a ferocious 49ers defensive front.
Cross didn't have an All-Pro, Tristan Wirfs-type rookie campaign. He more than held his own, though. As a dancing bear with quality hand work, Cross can stay in front of most outside speed rushers. The power element of his game is still not fully developed yet, as is the case with most young blockers. He'll have his work cut out for him against Nick Bosa and Co. on Saturday afternoon.
6. Tyler Linderbaum, C, Ravens
No one's giving the Ravens a chance against the Bengals. Frankly, the overarching thought has credence. Baltimore's probably not going to have its former MVP quarterback, and the offense has unsurprisingly been flailing without him. The Ravens have yet to score 20 points without Lamar Jackson as the starter, and Cincinnati manhandled Baltimore in Week 18.
I can bet the Ravens' offensive line doesn't care about any of that. This is a rugged group of ground-game plows carefully curated by GM Eric DeCosta for Greg Roman's diverse run scheme, and Linderbaum was born to play center for this Ravens club after his time at Iowa. And he'll have a challenge against the wide and athletic D.J. Reader at nose tackle for the Bengals. The Ravens can stay in this game if they control the clock to keep the ball out of Joe Burrow's hands. They can do that by grinding the football into a pulp via the run. In the midst of all the injury news coming out of Baltimore this week, there's a glimmer of light -- J.K. Dobbins and his 5.7 yards-per-attempt average is likely to return. How the center of the Ravens' blocking unit plays will matter a great deal on Sunday night.
5. Abraham Lucas, OT, Seahawks
Nick Bosa played 743 snaps during the 2022 regular season, and just under 60% of those snaps came on the left side of the 49ers' defensive line. That indicates Lucas is probably going have the most one-on-one meet-and-greets with Bosa in this game. And Bosa registered 90 pressures this season. Bananas. He's as slippery as they come around the corner and deceptively powerful when he decides to bull rush.
Lucas doesn't back down from any challenges. Remember early in the season when there was a viral pancake block from Lucas like every week? If he can even slightly limit the havoc that Bosa creates in this game, it'll drastically improve the Seahawks' chances at victory.
4. Kyle Hamilton, S, Ravens
Hamilton's quietly hummed along this season after going a bit later than most expected in last April's draft. He had some coverage mistakes early but has really hit his stride and made plenty of noise lately for the Ravens defense. He has three pass breakups and two interceptions since Week 15 and has seemed to get it in terms of the vast responsibilities he has in Baltimore's defense.
Of course, a key to a Ravens upset this weekend is a stellar defensive effort from Mike Macdonald's crew against Joe Burrow and the deep, high-powered Bengals. And Hamilton's constantly in a different pre-snap alignment. He often rotates late to a different zone, with a different assignment. His impact can't be overstated in this clash between heated AFC North rivals.
3. Brock Purdy, QB, 49ers
In the blink of an eye, Purdy's gone from Mr. Irrelevant to the most relevant guy on the 49ers roster. Sure, he's operating a brilliantly designed scheme with a sturdy offensive line and an embarrassment of YAC riches. He still needs to make the right reads, react properly to pressure and throw with good timing and ball placement.
Now, he's not facing the Seahawks' Legion of Boom defense. But this game marks the beginning of the pressure on Purdy being cranked up as the rookie who was the last pick in the draft holding the offensive reins for the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
2. Evan Neal, OT, Giants
Coming straight out with it -- Neal did not have a good rookie season. He wasn't 100% healthy early yet even when he returned, Neal was nowhere close to the bull-dozing behemoth he was at Alabama. Lots of woeful pass-blocking reps, too. Altogether, 39 allowed pressures on 453 pass-pro snaps. That's a pressure on Daniel Jones every 11.6 drop backs. Yikes. In the first matchup between the Giants and Vikings, Neal surrendered a whopping seven pressures.
And Danielle Hunter mostly aligns on the left side of the line for Minnesota, so Neal will see plenty of the long-time Vikings outside rusher, whose physique resembles a statue in the middle of city square in Europe. How Neal plays will have massive implications on the outcome of this likely tight Giants-Vikings game.
1. Skylar Thompson, QB, Dolphins
How can Thompson not be at No. 1? Has to be. He's a seventh-round rookie starting on the road against the No. 2 seed in the conference. Sure, he has Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and an imaginative scheme set forth by Mike McDaniel. But the environment is a hostile one for the former Kansas State star.
Entering this contest, his stats don't look good -- 57.1% completion rate, 5.1 yards per attempt, one touchdown, three interceptions. However, there is some athleticism to his game, and Thompson's shown a willingness to at least attempt difficult throws beyond 10 yards. How Thompson handles the atmosphere in Orchard Park and executes in many moments will have an enormous impact on this game. No rookie can move the needle across a wider spectrum on Super Wild Card Weekend.